Villagers take refuge on a rooftop above flood waters from a collapsed dam in the Attapeu district of southeastern Laos, Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Credit: Attapeu Today | AP

Hundreds of people are missing after a billion-dollar hydropower dam collapsed in southern Laos.

The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam has been under construction since 2013. It ruptured Monday evening, releasing 5 billion cubic meters of water. Hundreds of homes in Attapeu were washed away, and 6,600 people were displaced. Dozens were killed by the burst, according to the state news media.

The dam was scheduled to go into operation next year. It was expected to produce about 1,879 gigawatt hours of electricity a year from water funneled through three diverted rivers. Its owners — Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding from Thailand and SK E&C and Korea Western Power Company from South Korea — were planning to sell 90 percent of the electricity produced to Thailand.

In a statement, Ratchaburi blamed continuous rainstorms, which had caused “a high volume of water” to flow into the reservoir.

This isn’t the first time the dam has imperiled the community around it. As The New York Times explained: “Hydropower dams are a major source of energy in Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But they are also controversial, in part because they often displace rural poor and cause severe impacts on fisheries and watersheds.”

Last year, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia reported that residents of three villages had been forced to relocate in order to accommodate dam construction. The residents told the publication that the alternative land they’d been given was not suitable for farming.

“The area provided by the government is not suitable for farming,” one resident told RFA. “We can’t grow anything there, not even cucumbers. We will be poor if we continue to live there.”

Even so, Laos’ authoritarian government has aggressively pursued these projects, with an eye toward becoming “the battery of Asia.”

Other dam projects have also stirred controversy. Construction began on the Xayaburi dam, on the Mekong River in Thailand’s north, in 2012. The Laotian government contends that the project will generate millions of dollars in much-needed revenue for the impoverished country. But scientists say the project would disrupt the river’s ecosystem, leading to the extinction of several species of fish.

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